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Entries in Red Dawn [2012] (1)

Wednesday
Nov282012

Red Dawn (2012)

All Re-education. No Camp.

It's a shame Dan Bradley's Red Dawn remake was shelved for two years during the MGM bankruptcy. As brand-name "re-imaginings" continue their painful march towards depletion, I can only imagine the positive impression this film might have made had it been released on-schedule. If remakes are a necessary evil in Hollywood, Red Dawn 2012 is evil done right.

In the 1984 original, Cuba and Russia joined forces to invade the United States. Twenty-eight years later, Russia has teamed with North Korea. It's up to you to decide whether or not the slickly produced opening credits montage--featuring slightly modified news footage and press conferences--makes the fantastical premise any easier to swallow. I found it a movie-plausible gateway to the meat of the story, in which a group of American teenagers form a guerilla unit to take back their town.*

The setup is the same, as are most of the characters' names. But writers Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore do lots of really interesting things with their screenplay; their Red Dawn is still recognizable, but it diverges in key places so drastically and effectively that the movie forges its own identity.

For starters, the character relationships are given plenty of room to breathe. Unlike the original, which saw armed paratroopers tearing up the screen within the first five minutes, the new Red Dawn begins as a teen-soap version of Warrior. Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) clash on Jed's return home from the Iraq war. Jed left right after the boys' mom passed away, and their dad (Brett Cullen), a local police officer, has been emotionally distant ever since.

When the invasion begins, the boys high-tail it out of town. In a chaotic scene reminiscent of the opening of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Jed and Matt collect friends and other citizens in the back of their pickup truck while running down Korean soldiers and busting through road blocks. They make it safely to the family's wooded cabin** and, under Jed's leadership, plant the seeds of rebellion.

Though this Red Dawn is about a half-hour shorter than the original, it feels much more substantial. Many of the staples are still here, such as the deer's blood-drinking scene, the hidden tracking-device, and the Wolverines encountering an older soldier named Andy Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). But Ellsworth and Passmore tweak the hell out of these elements and add much more plot to the action scenes--meaning fans of John Milius and Kevin Reynolds' version won't feel like they're watching a re-run, and new audiences will get a sense of why someone thought this story needed to be re-told.

The two biggest contributors to the film's success are the directing and the screenplay. The cast is fine (especially Hemsworth, who exudes tough-guy emotional honesty in ways that make Patrick Swayze's attempts all the more amusing), but this kind of movie really needs a modern, flashy director who knows how to stage action--as well as writers who can give that director interesting action to stage. Bradley is a stunt coordinator by trade and has, I imagine, picked up a lot of great filmmaking tips on productions like the Bourne movies and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series.

In addition to a thrilling opening chase scene, we're treated to a public assassination attempt gone horribly wrong; an extended infiltration and extraction sequence at the Spokane, WA police headquarters; and a surprise death that nearly made me jump out of my seat. Much of this Bradley accomplishes without CGI explosions or cartoonish digital stunt men, lending the production a sense of realism that the premise desperately needs. My one gripe is a baffling sequence that begins with characters in an abandoned apartment building whose busted windows clearly let sun stream into the rooms; minutes later, they rush outside--to a nighttime street; after driving to safety, they stop in bright, daytime woods.

Yikes.

Let's move on to the screenplay. Until looking at his writing credits, I didn't realize that Ellsworth had been behind some of my favorite remakes of the last half-decade. Yes, the term "favorite remakes" demands a huge qualifying statement; here it is: I don't like the idea of remakes any more than you do. On the other hand, I'm not morally opposed to them. For the studios, these things are all about money. But for hungry filmmakers who want to get a foot in the door, or maybe pay homage to a movie they grew up loving, these can be great opportunities to say something new.

Two cases in point: Ellsworth worked on Disturbia and the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left--two movies I enjoyed tremendously. Disturbia is a teen-centric re-telling of Alfred Hithcock's Rear Window. Wisely, the filmmakers decided to only borrow the structure and leave the title alone. This allowed them to play with the material and explore different storytelling avenues without the audience playing "Compare and Contrast" through every scene.

I never saw Wes Craven's original Last House on the Left, so I can't comment on how the remake stands up to the original. However, I was so engrossed in what Ellsworth and director Dennis Iliadis did with their version that I didn't care. From what I know of the story, they made some smart, key changes, which is exactly what I've come to expect from an Ellsworth screenplay. The man knows how to adapt older material for our times, abandoning or satirizing the dated stuff while also contemporizing elements in ways that don't seem like trend-chasing (i.e. he doesn't wallow in pop culture references).

Red Dawn continues his track record of demonstrating a deep love (or at least an understanding) of the source material and altering it in ways that make the overall story much, much richer. For example, the 1984 version ends with much of the teen cast dead. Ellsworth and Bradley are more judicious in their bloodletting, meaning that certain characters live who"shouldn't" and other characters die "out of sequence". We remain engaged and off-kilter, instead of just waiting for the body count to reach its inevitable maximum.

That's all heavy praise, but I'd be doing you a disservice by not mentioning a few of the film's sizable problems. First, Red Dawn suffers from what I like to call "CW Gloss". The CW television network (formerly The WB) specializes in teen dramas like 90210 and Gossip Girl. Their programming features uniformly attractive actors who are so made up that even the occasional case of bed-head is a runway-ready work of art. Most of Red Dawn's characters spend months in the mountains, rolling around in dirt, setting off explosives, and practicing combat maneuvers. Though their clothes are sufficiently scruffy and their hair is at leased tousled, many of their faces have a golden L'Oreal glow that suggests the Wolverines' first mission was to re-claim the town day spa.

A related problem plagues Peck, whose character is ten years his junior. That's not uncommon in Hollywood, but the actor's features are so rough that he looks older than his "older brother", Hemsworth. He also seems to have gone Method for this role--which would be fine, if his imaginary back-story didn't involve dual addictions to emo music and pills. That's speculation, of course, but there's nothing in Peck's performance to suggest that Matt would be a key player on the football team--he's more like the mopey, bullied water boy who would have blown his brains out during the next half-time show if the Koreans hadn't given him something else to shoot at.

I also really miss Powers Boothe's version of the Tanner character from the original. Morgan makes as good a substitute as any, but his performance is hampered by the inclusion of two fellow soldiers that serve only to water down the emotional gravity Tanner brings to the Wolverines.

Those quibbles aside, I recommend Red Dawn. I can feel your skepticism coming at me in clench-faced, sniffling waves even as I type this. Believe me when I say that I had zero enthusiasm for watching this thing, especially after having muscled through the original only a few days before. This film has a fraction of the mindless, easy patriotism of its predecessor, and has way more heart, brains, and excitement than Milius could have imagined possible for such a project twenty-eight years ago. This is far from a perfect movie, but as one of the year's biggest surprises, it's well worth an hour-and-a-half of your time.

Trivia! For you horror nuts out there, Dan Bradley briefly played Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. He was soon replaced by C.J. Graham, and you can see the noticeable physical difference between the performers in Bradley's one surviving scene: Jason's attack on a group of weekend-warrior paintballers.

*I'm reminded of that terrific line in Looper, wherein Bruce Willis's character tells his younger self not to get caught up in questioning the details of their time-travel predicament, lest they "spend all days making diagrams out of straws".

**Coincidentally, Hemsworth also starred in The Cabin in the Woods, another 2012 film delayed by the MGM bankruptcy.